Utility Week

Utility Week 6th December

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Operations & Assets Market view Sustainable arguments Proponents and critics of the use of biofuel speak with equal passion, but new technologies can be employed to make sure the debate is better informed, say Richard Tipper and Karin Viergever. W ith concerns about climate change continuing to play a key role in the energy debate, the scrutiny of electricity generators and their commitment to managing greenhouse gas emissions will continue. Biofuels have already come under the environmental spotlight, and because doubts remain over the long-term future of government subsidies for biomass generation, the sources and sustainability of such fuels is set to require greater monitoring in the future. Bioenergy, in liquid or solid form, represents the largest component of non-fossil energy used globally, according to the International Energy Agency. It estimates that the primary energy supply of traditional wood fuel and charcoal used in developing countries is greater than the combined output of all civil nuclear power stations. While the theoretical potential of bioenergy is known to be substantial, the widespread use of biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel for transport, alongside solid biomass (including woodchips or pellets for heat and electricity generation), has been criticised by environmental groups ever since their promotion as a serious component of an expanded renewable energy supply. Interestingly, the use of gaseous bioenergy, in the form of methane captured from landfills or farm-scale bio-digestion, has been less contested. The use of so-called first generation biofuels, bioethanol produced from starch and sugar crops and biodiesel produced from oil crops, has attracted particular criticism. Specific concerns have been raised about the potential for the use of biofuel to lead to food scarcity and reduced food security. There are also concerns that fuel crops will be grown directly on land of importance for biodiversity or water supplies, or will else they will displace carbon stocks such as forests and peaty soils. Second generation biofuels, generally made from turning woody biomass and crop residues into ethanol or other gasoline substitutes, may avoid some of the direct food competition issues. However, because such 26 | 6th - 12th December 2013 | UTILITY WEEK fuels require large-scale production facilities, there are still potential problems. The use of solid biomass, particularly large-scale applications for co-firing with coal, has been questioned because of unease about the sustainability of sources of wood fuel and the potential for deforestation and degradation of natural or semi-natural managed forests. Sceptics have also highlighted the possible impact of dedicated biomass crops in terms of water usage and biodiversity. These environmental issues have been raised to a level that has caused governments to scale back their support. In turn this has placed a greater onus on the bioenergy sector to demonstrate sustainability, rather than simply accept the assertion "it's bio therefore it's green". Well-designed biofuel schemes complement food production, giving farmers greater opportunities to hedge against market fluctuations, sell multiple products and get some value for crops spoiled by rain or pests. In the case of solid biofuel, the timely and measured extraction of biomass from forest and woodlands is becoming an important part of controlling the spread of diseases, pests and preventing the excessive accumulation of deadwood where there is risk of wildfire. The opportunities for bioenergy crops such as miscanthus, eucalyptus and grasses is also considerable, provided they are properly selected and grown at appropriate scale. Remote sensing, ecological modelling and geospatial information systems are at the forefront of addressing many of these sustainability issues and have the potential to guide bioenergy usage to levels and approaches that are widely accepted as sustainable and positive. The monitoring of the Earth's landmasses by observation satellite has come a long way since the launch of Nasa's Landsat 1 in 1972. With all the historical data from Landsat programme being freely available since February 2009, it is a highly used resource in the fields of agriculture, forestry, geology, mapping, regional planning and global change research. On the European scene, the European Space Agency is to launch its Sentinel constellation of six satellites over the next decade, as part of the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security programme. The number of Earth-observing satellites has grown exponentially over time, operated not only by national and international space agencies but also by commercial data providers, such as DigitalGlobe and RapidEye. Combining the various data streams from satellites, weather stations and on the ground observations can produce valuable geospatial intelligence. Such satellite data can be harnessed in various ways. On a basic level, satellite images can be visually interpreted for basic observations, for example, changes to the patterns of land cover or adherence to environmental legislation, such as planting crops at specific distances from water bodies. However, using specialist software and techniques, analysts can extract advanced information from a combination of different satellite data types and observation times. Companies are increasingly looking for information products that feed in to their existing supply chain or asset management systems. As a result, there is a requirement for smart data mining and alerts that will run queries on data, either periodically or in response to a signal, such as when new data becomes available. Bioenergy will without doubt continue to be a contested space between advocates and critics. However, the information provided by current and emerging spatial intelligence systems has the potential to inform more effective, evidence-based policies in the future. In response, the energy sector must take steps to ensure it addresses this issue by securing the information required to understand, manage and, ultimately, minimise the risk of disruptions to their supply chain and safeguard energy security. Richard Tipper is chairman of Ecometrica, a provider of geospatial environmental information, and Karin Viergever is Ecometrica's head of land use and spatial analysis

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